5 January 2012

How to Stitch: Part 1

This post is part of the Learn to Sew series aimed at beginners.

Set up your machine? Check. Threaded it up? Check. Now comes the fun part!

Using a sewing machine for the first time can be a little daunting but just relax, take your time and have some fun with it. Practise stitching on some calico (unbleached cotton) or plain medium-weight cotton - basically you want something that’s cheap and not slippery. Pick out some brightly coloured thread that stands out against the fabric so you can monitor your stitches … and marvel at how your accuracy improves with practice!

I've divided this 'How to Stitch' post up into two parts as it was getting quite long. In this first post I'll show you how to start and finish stitching, and in part two you'll get some practise in sewing straight lines, curved lines and corners.

Preparing to stitch

Check your machine is on the basic stitch setting and that it’s threaded up correctly (see How to Thread Your Sewing Machine). You want to have pulled out about four inches or so of “spare” thread to prevent it from unthreading itself from the machine – it also helps to hold onto the threads when you make your first stitches.

Place your fabric under the presser foot with the area you want to stitch in front of the machine, and lower the presser foot to hold it in place. NB. Lowering your presser foot is essential to help keep the fabric in place (unless you’re doing some freestyle advanced machine embroidery) but is easy to forget – you might want to make your sewing mantra “lower your presser foot” for a while…

The upper/spool thread should be under the presser foot but on top of the fabric, and the lower/bobbin thread underneath the fabric. Both threads should be sticking out towards the back so you don’t sew over them and tie them in knots.

Before you start any new line of stitching, check that the needle is lifted as high as it can go (turn the handwheel to adjust it). This helps to avoid the frustrations of stuck or unravelling thread.


Turn your machine on. Place both hands lightly on the fabric either side of the presser foot to help guide it as you’re stitching - but don’t push or pull. Needless to say (arf!), keep your fingers out of the way of the needle! Gently lower your foot onto the pedal to start stitching…


Fun, isn’t it? Right, I’ll let you enjoy that for a little while…

Okay, back to business. Some machines have speed setting buttons, so you can start slow and build up speed as you throw caution to the wind. If, like me, your machine doesn’t have this luxury, you’ll have to learn to control the speed by how much pressure you apply to the pedal. Apparently this is like driving a car, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t drive.

Using the handwheel

If you want to stitch reeeeeally sloooowwwly – or maybe just move forward by one or two stitches for added precision – you can use the handwheel at the side of your machine. Turn it towards you to basically perform the same function as the pedal but manually. I sometimes use the handwheel to make the first stitch into the fabric to avoid the thread coming loose and to ensure the needle goes exactly where I want it to go.

Cutting loose

When you’ve finished stitching, raise your presser foot so you can pull your fabric out a little. The needle will need to be raised – you can use the hand wheel to move it up slightly until the thread gives enough for you to move the fabric. You can snip the threads with small scissors (embroidery or nail scissors are fine).

Alternatively – and pretty awesomely – your machine might have a little blade on the left hand side that you can use in one uber-slick manoeuvre.

Securing your stitches

When you’re sewing for real, unless your stitches are temporary, you’ll want to secure them in place. You can do this one of two ways:

1) Hold down the reverse (or back) stitch lever or button on your machine to sew backwards (or "back tack") two or three stitches over the end of your stitching, then forwards again to secure. Snip the threads close to the fabric. This is the method you will probably use the most.

2) If you’ve sewn off the end of the fabric, you can just tie the two ends of thread together in a double knot and snip close to the knot. This is usually done on darts or other tricky spots where you don’t want the extra bulk of reverse stitches.

You can sew! Hurrah!

Up next: How to Stitch: Part 2 - straight lines, curved lines and corners. 
Liked this? Read more Learn to Sew posts.


  1. Your timing is perfect! My boyfriend bought me a sewing machine for Christmas and I've never used one before (I clearly skived my textile classes at school!). I read your blog anyway, but the first update I saw after Christmas was your How to Stitch. Hurrah! Thank you!

  2. great tutorial, very clear and easy to follow :)

  3. i'm reading all of these and loving them. hey, can you pull the thread towards you on newer machines? on all my vintage jobs, i have to pull the threads away and to the back left when finishing a seam or the needle bends like it's doing the limbo.

    1. Great tutorial, Thank you!!!!!

      I am now considering what will be my first project! Im thinking a tote shopping bag.

  4. great tutorial! I just started sewing this past July. Hoping to make lots of great things. I just started a blog to share some of my projects.


  5. This was a life saver! I committed to sewing scarves as gifts for Christmas (first time sewing EVER) I kept jamming the thread up until I came here. After reading this, my project was seamless! (zing)

  6. Fab, tutorial. Really helpful and clear, pictures help a lot. I shall be going through all your tutorials to help me learn to sew :)


  7. Hello! Great post series. I would really really love if you would do one on thread tension. I have so much trouble with my new Brother sewing machine trying to get the tension right. Normally I get giant loops on the underside of the fabric. I've tried sewing jersey and fleece with it and have had problems with both (granted they are difficult materials!). Thanks a billion. x

  8. LOVE this. Thank you! I inherited my grandma's sewing machine and finally busted it out. I know my problem is tension right now, and thankfully have a woman at the school where I work who can help me, but I feel so accomplished just knowing how to thread it and get moving (even if the stitches suck!!). Thanks! I'll definitely be back for more!

  9. I was very happy to find this site to help me learn to sew! Thanks for putting up these tutorials. :)

  10. I have to tell you that I just discovered your Learn-to-Sew posts and they are so great! Thank you for that :) I took some classes and bought some books, but you are much more didactic.

  11. Hi Tilly, great post, thanks so much. I followed it all and when I got to the stitching bit the needle won't move up and down! It was working before I threaded it as I stitched a bit of paper to release it. I've got the same machine so I thought I'd check if there's anything obvious I might've done?!

  12. great tutorial, very clear and easy to follow :)

    tao of badass

  13. I was so happy to find your page by chance when looking for help with getting back in to sewing (although I've only done very basic stuff before.) I was recently bought a sewing machine, the exact same model as yours which makes your tutorials even more useful!


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